Conference Report: FOSS Means Business, Belfast


No more than 100 yards down the road from
Europe's
"most bombed" hotel
sits
Belfast's Spires Conference
Centre
, which does double duty as Northern Ireland's Presbyterian Assembly. It was
to this stunning location that the faithful flocked on
the eve of St. Patrick's Day 2006. The
FOSS Means
Business Conference
was the result of a
north-south, cross-border initiative to bring those interested in free
and open-source software together for the first time. The conference was
held to host talks by two of the free software world's patron saints, Bruce
Perens and Richard Stallman.

Well over
200
attendees
registered for the event, and easily that many people
showed up on the day. The conference was kicked off and
introduced by three speakers: Aidan Gough of
InterTradeIreland,
Paul McCormack of NETc and Ian Graham of Momentum NI.
The Bruce Perens Keynote
Framed by two large stained glass windows, an impressive church pipe
organ and an altar, Bruce Perens began his keynote by spreading his
hands wide and uttering the words, "Dearly beloved". After
the laughter died down, Perens joked further by comparing programmers
to clergy, with references to "oaths of poverty", "chastity" and
"celibacy" thrown in for good measure. Overall, Perens delivered an entertaining
keynote, recounting tales from his days at Pixar and his first
experience with collaborative software development across the
Internet, apparently unbeknown to his Pixar bosses.

The highlights of Perens' talk were his discussion of the emergence of a new economic paradigm
in the software world and his exposure of the myth that all software
development is driven by and servicing the retail market. Most
software is created in-house and is not for profit or sale, Perens
stated. Microsoft was described as a "tool maker" that has enabled
people to access technology, an achievement that Perens suggested be
applauded. This and other subsequent observations were presented in an
inspiring manner, as Perens paced back and forth across the stage
declaring, among other things, that "Marketing people have no
crystal ball!" and "Only 5% of your retail dollar goes to the
programmer". The message was simple and clear: if so little of our
retail software dollars make it to the programmer anyway, then all the
talk of starving, unemployed programmers resulting from the embracing of
FOSS is not a sustainable argument.

The downbeat portion of Perens' talk was his observations on software patents.
After describing how the patent process is supposed to work and how it
is being abused by some, the bombshell was dropped: our favorite OS
"will not survive a sustained patent lawsuit". The reason this hasn't
happened already, according to Perens, is because software patent
law either does not exist or has not been harmonized across Europe. The
message was clear: if software patent law happens, beware! To quote
Perens directly: "Patent law is the killer!". According to Perens,
what's required is a fight and, if necessary, sacrifices. Perens came
to Belfast to issue a call to arms: resist software patent law in
Europe. Get active, write letters, submit articles for publication and
educate your elected representatives.

Having distractedly watched the European software patent debate rage for
the last little while, I now clearly understand the evil that is
software patent law. I now know that it's time to make my voice heard,
in whatever way I can.
Google, Birmingham City Council and Oracle
With the audience now sufficiently wound up, a quick coffee break was in
order. Afterwards, the next speaker was Zaheda Bhorat from
Google, a company that is a significant employer
in Ireland. Bhorat supposedly was here to describe Google's relationship
with the FOSS community. Instead, we got a bland presentation
of what Google is ("a really great place to work") and what Google does
("hires the best, brightest people"). Such drivel was totally out of
place for a conference of this type. About half way through the
presentation, a slide appeared on screen declaring that Google used the
BSD license for some of its code. Almost immediately, a booming North
American accented voice called out, "Which BSD license are you using?"
To this question, Bhorat replied, "Oh, hello Richard". When Bhorat
stated that Google was using the BSD license, Richard
asked again, "Which BSD license? It makes a difference." When no clear answer was forthcoming, Bhorat declared that
she would find out and let Stallman know. The retort was pointed and
swift: "Don't tell me, tell the public! They have a right to know."
Suitably ruffled, Bhorat--thankfully--raced through the remainder of
her "Google is wonderful" presentation.

Les Timms, IT Manager for Birmingham City Council in
the UK, spoke next. Presenting in
front of 200 or so technical people appeared to be a daunting task for Timms,
and he wasn't helped by some truly unreadable slides. Timms, too, fell afoul
of Stallman. About half way through Timms' talk, Stallman's booming
voice declared, "The system's name is not Linux, it's GNU". To this
Timms offered, "Would you agree it's open source?" The voice
scoffed, "No, I would never call it that!". It was a pity that Timms
presentation was so bad, because his content was interesting. Timms
talked about his department's recent experiences, both good and bad,
with moving the city's library services to an open-source environment.

Owen Hughes, of Oracle, managed not to fall afoul of Stallman. Instead, Hughes angered the entire audience. Working from a
slick presentation that was more "sales pitch" than "technical
information", Hughes referred to numerous Oracle products that are
"free". For each product, the standard pitch was, "I've used this. It's
really cool. You should take a look at it. Download it for free from...".
After a handful of comments like this, the audience could contain
itself no longer. A quick question from the floor asked, "It is free as
in speech or free as in beer?". Hughes wasn't sure how to answer. A
voice from the back of the hall called out, "Don't use the word 'free'
to describe this, use 'cost-less'". It soon became clear that what is
"free" to Oracle, is not "free" to the vast majority of conference
attendees. This distinction was the cue for others to ask if Oracle distributed the
source code to these "free" products. Hughes looked positively shocked
that someone would ask such a question of him, then meekly replied, "No,
source code is not included." From the floor, Bruce Perens offered
Hughes some advice, "You need to clean this up before presenting it to
an audience like this again.". After this exchange, a battered and
bruised Hughes quickly concluded his sales pitch, but not before
describing some other really cool Oracle software that he has used and
that we should all take a look at.
Love Thy Neighbor: Stallman's Software World View
After lunch, Ciaran O'Riordan from the
European Free Software
Foundation
took to the stage to introduce the final
speaker, Richard Stallman. Where Perens was inspiring, Stallman was enlightening, even though he
began by stating that this was "not going to be a relaxing experience".
Speaking in Belfast on his 53rd birthday, Stallman certainly lived up to
his reputation. He's emotive, uncompromising, scathing, moral, ethical,
sometimes intolerant but, above all, worth listening to.

Stallman began by painstakingly explaining what the Free Software
Foundation (FSF) means by the term
"free
software"
. Once done, Stallman
talked about ethics and morals. He had a number of messages: it's
not a crime to share with your neighbor; you're not a "pirate" if you help
your neighbor by sharing software; proprietary software vendors are
trampling all over your freedom; DRM is bad news, no matter which way
you look at it. His final message was freedom of choice is not what it's
all about; it's about having the freedom to have control over your own life. The
overriding message was resist the urge to use non-free, proprietary
software. "Don't take the easy option--push back!" was the rallying
cry. Throughout, Stallman presented the material in an engaging and
entertaining way.

After this introduction, time was devoted to explaining the reasoning behind Stallman's
insistence that our favorite OS be referred to as "GNU/Linux". Having
listened, I have to admit that it's hard
not to agree with him. Having dealt with the name, he then warned the
community not to blindly follow those whom we perceive to be leading us.
Although not named, this was a side-swipe at Linus Torvalds, who, in
Stallman's opinion, is not guided by the same principles as the FSF.
This--again, in Stallman's opinion--may lead to the possibility of
future problems. When some of the audience reacted to these statements, with Bruce Perens
chipping in, too, Stallman's response began, "You see ... it's
getting pretty nasty".

Stallman warned that in 2006 the FSF has powerful, active enemies. He
lamented the fact that the world's governments aren't helping and are
instead pandering to the views of big business and mega-corporations. He
regretted the influence North American business is trying to exert on
the European Parliament, which led to the best quote of his entire
talk, "Foreigners like me and Bill Gates should not have any power in
Europe, and I really don't". Stallman warned against the notion of
trusted computing, describing such devices as "computers you cannot
program". He concluded his talk with his views, and presumably those
of the FSF, on free software and employment--it'll make little
difference; on free software and education--we need more of it; and the
community re-write of the
GPL
. He invited all of the attendees to get involved in this
important revision, which will result in GPLv3.
I'm A Saint, It's My Job to Be Holy
With the serious stuff out of the way, Stallman grabbed a halo and cloak
and delivered his (in)famous Church of Emacs, St. Ignucius homily.
Although I'm a long-time user of Vi, I had to laugh at
Stallman's swipes at my favorite editor. A lively question-and-answer
session concluded the session, with Stallman defending some of his
comments and expanding on others.

Having heard Stallman describe what the FSF believes "free software" to
mean, I now totally appreciate the importance of its work. I also
appreciate the freedom the GPL gives me as well as the overriding
requirement we all have to fight for the freedom to run free software on our computers. According
to Stallman, it's all about respect and helping one another.

Since the conference, I've read in more than one source that Torvalds
and Stallman have "exchanged views" over the GPLv3 rewrite. I think it
is important to realise that all communities need leaders (Torvalds) and
saints (Stallman). We need to remember that often it's the saints who
keep the leaders pointed in the right direction.

Paul Barry (paul.barry@itcarlow.ie) lectures at the Institute of
Technology, Carlow, in Ireland. Information on the courses he teaches, in
addition to the books and articles he has written, can be found on
his Web
site
.

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